The evolution of decorative art
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The evolution of decorative art : an essay upon its origin and development as illustrated by the art of modern races of mankind (1893)
By Balfour Henry
In presenting this short and, as I am well aware, imperfect essay to the public, I feel that it is necessary to say a few words in justification of my action. Although, for a proper comprehension of the growth of Art, it is necessary that its evolution should be studied from its very simplest beginning, this aspect of the subject has hardly been touched upon by writers of so-called * Histories of Art.’ In these, frequently very excellent works, the history of art is traced back perhaps to Assyrian and Ancient Egyptian civilisations, and a few writers dwell briefly upon the characteristics of modern Savage Art. Few of them, however, offer any study of the Art of the more primitive of the living races of mankind, with a view to explaining, by a process of reasoning from the known to the unknown, the first efforts of Primaeval Man to produce objects which should be pleasing to the eye, and gratify his growing aesthetic feelings.
The Art of Design must, we know, have had a continuous history, and have grown up gradually from simple beginnings, at first by easy stages, involving but slight intellectual efforts, steadily progressing until it has become an essential element in our surroundings, absorbing a vast amount of complex reasoning, the result of the accumulation and combination of simple ideas, which are the outcome of experience during countless ages.
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Exoticism in the Decorative Arts
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European interest in non-Western art was first stimulated by trade with the East in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (17.190.2045). By the nineteenth century, with the advent of the railroad and steamship, lands that were little known to Westerners became easier to access. As more Europeans traveled beyond the established routes of the Grand Tour, their experiences abroad began to influence their tastes at home. Other influences were a result of England’s massive imperial control over lands in China, India, Africa, and the Pacific. By mid-century, many non-Western forms and ornamental motifs had found their way into the vocabulary of European decorative arts.
“Like Orientalist subjects in nineteenth-century painting, exoticism in the decorative arts and interior decoration was associated with fantasies of opulence and “barbaric splendour,”
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Defining Decorative Arts
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The decorative arts is traditionally a term for the design and manufacture of functional objects. It includes interior design, but not usually architecture. The decorative arts are often categorized in opposition to the “fine arts”, namely, painting, drawing, photography, and large-scale sculpture, which generally have no function other than to be seen.
The distinction between decorative and fine arts has essentially risen from the post-Renaissance art of the West, where it is for the most part meaningful. It is much less so when applied to the art of other cultures and periods, where the most highly-regarded works often include those in “decorative” media, or all works are in such media. For example, Islamic art in many periods and places consists entirely of the decorative arts, as does the art of many traditional cultures, and in Chinese art the distinction is less useful than in Europe. Even in Europe, the distinction is unhelpful for Early Medieval art, where although “fine arts” such as manuscript illumination and monumental sculpture existed, the most prestigious works, commissioned from the best artists, tended to be in goldsmith work, cast metals such as bronze or other techniques such as ivory carving. Large-scale wall-paintings were apparently much less regarded, relatively crudely executed, and rarely mentioned in contemporary sources; they were probably seen as a cheap but inferior substitute for mosaic, which in this period must be treated as a fine art, though in recent centuries contemporary production has tended to be seen as decorative. The term “ars sacra” (“sacred arts”) is sometimes used for medieval Christian art in metal, ivory, textiles and other high-value materials from this period, though this does not cover the even rarer survivals of secular works.
Modern understanding of the art of many cultures tends to be distorted by the modern privileging of fine art media over others, as well as the very different survival rates of works in different media. Works in metal, above all in precious metals, are liable to be “recycled” as soon as they fall from fashion, and were often used by owners as repositories of wealth, to be melted down when extra money was needed. Illuminated manuscripts have a much higher survival rate, especially in the hands of the church, as there was little value in the materials and they were easy to store.
The promotion of the fine arts over the decorative in European thought can largely be traced to the Renaissance, when Italian theorists such as Vasari promoted artistic values, exemplified by the artists of the High Renaissance, that placed little value on the cost of materials or the amount of skilled work required to produce a work, but instead valued artistic imagination and the individual touch of the hand of a supremely gifted master such as Michelangelo, Raphael or Leonardo da Vinci, reviving to some extent the approach of antiquity. Most European art during the Middle Ages had been produced under a very different set of values, where both expensive materials and virtuoso displays in difficult techniques had been highly valued. In China both approaches had co-existed for many centuries: ink and wash painting, mostly of landscapes, was to a large extent produced by and for the scholar-bureaucrats or “literati”, and was intended as an expression of the artist’s imagination above all, while other major fields of art, including the very important Chinese ceramics produced in effectively industrial conditions, were produced according to a completely different set of artistic values.
The lower status given to works of decorative art in contrast to fine art narrowed with the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement. This aesthetic movement of the second half of the 19th century was born in England and inspired by William Morris and John Ruskin. The movement represented the beginning of a greater appreciation of the decorative arts throughout Europe. The appeal of the Arts and Crafts Movement to a new generation led, in 1882, to the English architect and designer Arthur H. Mackmurdo organizing the Century Guild for craftsmen, which championed the idea that there was no meaningful difference between the fine and decorative arts. Many converts, both from professional artists’ ranks and from among the intellectual class as a whole, helped spread the ideas of the movement. The influence of the Arts and Crafts Moovement led to the decorative arts being given a greater appreciation and status in society and this was soon reflected by changes in the law. Until the enactment of the Copyright Act 1911 only works of fine art had been protected from unauthorised copying. The 1911 Act extended the definition of an “artistic work” to include works of “artistic craftsmanship”. For the first time works of decorative art could be classfied as works of art rather than design and benefit from the full period of copyright protection previously available only to works of fine art.
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About Decorative Arts
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The decorative arts—the furniture, pictures, ceramics, textiles, glass and metal objects—found in early houses are not only pleasing to look at, but tell us much about the people who lived in those houses. The decorative arts help us understand the development of style and taste, and at the same time provide important insights into social and economic history.
Some information about the decorative arts is gained from documents. Estate inventories, for example, provide detailed lists of objects found in specific rooms, and also disclose monetary values placed on those objects. From these we can learn about the wealth of an individual or a family and also about how they valued their possessions. Textiles such as linens, blankets, bed hangings and feather mattresses, often accounted for the most valuable portion of an estate. There is little wonder that great attention was paid to a young lady’s training in the needle arts.
Paintings and prints, an important category of the decorative arts, are themselves a major source of information about the furnishing of early interiors. As accurate as any photograph, they illustrate how furniture was placed in a room, how curtains were hung and floors covered, how plants were potted or tables set for a meal. These visual records tell us that people 100 or 200 years ago did not use space the same way we do today; their rooms in general contained fewer objects. We also learn that to furnish an early room with pieces belonging to one specific period is to misinterpret the past.
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